How a theory about transgender contagion went viral

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it came at a time when ill-intentioned people were looking for science to back up their ideas.

The results were in line with what one might expect given those sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was wrong to be transgender.” Over 85% said their child had increased their internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youngsters themselves had no say in the study, and there was no telling whether they had kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman notes that “parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings.”)

Arjee Restar, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words in his 2020 methodological critique of the paper. Restar noted that Littman chose to describe the “social and peer contagion” hypothesis in the consent document he shared with parents, opening the door to bias in who chose to respond to the survey and how they did so. She also highlighted that Littman asked parents to offer a “diagnosis” of their child’s gender dysphoria, which they were unqualified to do without professional training. It’s also possible that Littman’s data could include multiple responses from the same parent, Reistar wrote. Littman told the MIT Technology Review that “targeted recruitment [to studies] Really common practice.” He also points to the revised ROGD paper, which notes that a pro-gender-affirming parents Facebook group with 8,000 members posted the study’s recruitment information on its page — though Littman’s study did not include any of them. was not designed to be detectable.answered.

But politics is blind to nuance in legislation. And the paper was quickly seized by those who were pushing back against the growing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Litman published her ROGD paper, Time magazine profiled Laverne Cox, a trans actress. Orange is the new black, on its cover and declared a “transgender tipping point”. As of 2016, bills aimed at banning trans people from bathrooms that match their gender identity have failed across the country, and one that succeeded in North Carolina cost its Republican governor, Pat McCrory, his job.

Yet by 2018 a new response was well under way—one that zeroed in on trans youth. The debate about trans youth competing in sports became national, as was the widely publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans child and a father who did not. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, such as the Coalition Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, “started printing bills and introducing them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it came at just the right time when ill-intentioned people were looking to science to back up their ideas. The paper “laundered what had previously been the rantings of online conspiracy theorists and gave it the semblance of a serious scientific study,” Branstetter says. He believes that if Littman’s paper had not been published, someone else would have made the same argument. Despite its limitations, it has become an important weapon in the fight against trans people, largely through online dissemination. “It’s amazing that such an apparently bad-faith effort is taken so seriously,” says Branstetter.

Littman clearly rejects that characterization, saying his goal was to “find out what’s going on.” “It was a very good faith effort,” she says. “As a person I am liberal; I am pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and researched it, it was different from what happened in the scientific literature.

One of the reasons for success Litman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans children are new. But Jules Gill-Petersen, associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author History of the transgender child, says this is “empirically untrue”. Trans kids are just starting to be discussed in mainstream media, so people assume they weren’t around before, she says, but “kids have been transitioning for as long as there’s been transition-related medical technology,” and there have been kids. Social transition – living as a different gender without any medical or legal intervention – long ago.

Many trans people are young children when they first notice the difference between how they are identified and how they identify. The process of infection is never simple, but their identification can be explained.

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